The kingdom of childhood. I’ve no idea where that expression first appeared, but it sprang to mind anew as I watched Jacques Doillon’s Ponette (1996). I don’t know if I have ever watched a film that more thoroughly captures the world as seen through the eyes of young children. Half the credit must go to Jacques Doillon himself, who spent hundreds of hours interviewing children so he could help his very young cast be true to the story he created with them. The rest of our praise falls on the very small shoulders of the actors themselves. Four-year-old Victoire Thivisol, who plays Ponette, won the award for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival. She deserved it. Equally impressive are the performances of her like-aged co-stars, Matiaz Bureau Caton, Delphine Schiltz, and Léopoldine Serre.
The actual plot of Ponette scarcely fills a file-card. A four-year-old girl is in a car accident with her mother. Ponette suffers a broken arm. Her mother dies. Her father’s self-pity leaves no room for his daughter. He drops her off with an aunt who has two children, Delphine (Schiltz) and Matiaz (Caton). The family lives in an old stone farmhouse in the mountains of southern France. Later, the children move to town to attend school. Ponette devotes all of her imagination, her passion, her energy, and her intelligence to coming to terms with her impossible loss.
Had Ponette been a more typical movie of its kind, there would have been sub-plots galore. The father would have been struggling with suicidal depression, the aunt would have been a martinet, a saintly grandparent would have appeared to Make Sense of It All, the children would have gotten themselves trapped somewhere with Time Running Out or would have been Kidnapped by Terrorists plotting an attack on the Cannes Film Festival, and Ponette would have learned a Very Important Lesson. The viewer would have been compelled to weep at Loss and smile blissfully through Redemption.
Even less mercenary movie directors tend to use children to tell stories which, although they may be about children, are somewhat distanced from them by an adult sensibility. This applies even to strong films with strong performances by young actors, films such as The Scent of Green Papaya, Au Revoir les Enfants, and The Piano. With Ponette, director Jacques Doillon lets his actors, particularly Thivisol, speak without a translator or ulterior motives
Back to the kingdom of childhood. The word “kingdom” conjures up an inexhaustible pageant peopled by kings, queens, knights, nobles, philosophers, alchemists, austringers, clerics, fools, wizards, trouvères, trulls, turf boys, jongleurs, villeins and serfs. A world so rich that Arthur’s Camelot, for example, will continue to give birth to new tales to the end of recorded time. What Ponette makes us all appreciate is that a young girl’s mind, faced with trying to comprehend as devastating a loss as that of a parent, is as rich a kingdom as Camelot. Virtually anything which anyone may say to her can be transmuted more magically than dross into gold. Adults try to comfort Ponette with stories of Christ’s resurrection and the afterlife, but their stories are confounded with those of her cousins and schoolmates. During the time of the Arian heresy, medieval theologians argued for decades over two Greek words (homoousios and homoiousios) that had one letter’s difference between them; their theology is shamed by the sublime innocence, ignorance, sincerity, spontaneity, skepticism and faith of Ponette and her companions.
Not that the film puts down adults. That would be condescending and unworthy. It’s just that the theology of four-year-olds is a marvelous work-in-progress, rather than a dogma. There are conversations like this one, between Ponette and Matiaz:
–“I don’t want to play. I’m waiting for my mother.”
–“Dead people never come back.”
–“Jesus did it for his friends. I’m more than a friend.”
–“Grandpa never came back.”
–“Because no one was waiting for him.”
Kids are also closer to the heart of ritual than are most adults at any but the most intense moments of their lives. Everyone knows that if a girl kisses a candy and a boy eats it, he must love that girl forever. Told by Matiaz that a gift will let her mother know she loves her, and perhaps call her back, Ponette stands in a field with arms outstretched, fists clenched, one hand holding a feather, a pine cone, and some leaves. One student at school, Ada (Serre), a “child of God” whose role model is Joan of Arc rather than Barbie, assigns Ponette a series of “trials” which will make her worthy of holding direct conversations with God (“Some people can order God around a little. I can make God stop talking. Sometimes he talks too much. God told me, ‘You have to undergo great trials.’ You want me to give you a trial tomorrow?”)
Some of Ponette’s trials are much harsher than Ana’s invented ones. Ponette’s father resents what he sees as his relative’s facile comfort in religion. He tells her she’s just acting crazy with her prayers and her talk of calling her mother back: “God doesn’t talk to the living. God’s for the dead, not for us. Your mommy wasn’t afraid to die, so spare me all this Jesus and God stuff.” In the school playground, a boy tells Ponette that she killed her mother—mothers only die because their children are mean. At night, there comes the frightening time when Ponette’s mother is suddenly absent even from her dreams.
As remarkable as what the children say in this film is their body language when they say it. Doillon uses a lot of very close up photography. It’s possible because children seem to have a radically different sense of personal space than adults. They communicate passionately with noses and bodies inches apart. They touch one another on hair, cheeks, shoulders with a gently intimacy which could probably save a lot of adult relationships if we could preserve it past the age of four or five, or beyond those first blissful days after becoming lovers. Doillon deepens the sense of intimacy of his film even further by eliminating the musical score. Gestures and words are surrounded by silence.
At her aunt’s home in the mountains, and in the small town in which she attends school, Ponette has the space to heal and to play. She is left alone to work through her grief, or left free to interact with her peers. This is in contrast to what some people have commented on recently in regards to how our society may have stolen play—its freedom and its risks—from our children. Particularly in larger cities, parents’ fears for their children’s safety has led them to structure play in such a way that nothing is left to chance. Moving into a new neighborhood, for instance, what parent would think of telling their child to get on a bike and “go explore”? Is our collective paranoia justified, or is it just paranoia? How dangerous is the world our children live in? Are we building walls and fences against the depredations of strangers, when 99% of child abductions are done by parents? Yet another reason to count our blessings here on the Eastshore, where a child like Ponette could still find the freedom to learn and grow in her own time and space.
One very small caveat. I think Doillon blew it at the end. After about ten minutes into Ponette, when I realized how good it really was, I started to wonder how the story could possibly find a satisfactory resolution. Doillon didn’t find it. Perhaps because this is the only point in the film where he allowed an adult actor’s role to overshadow those of the children. I won’t hold it against him. He’s done his young charges proud, and then some.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
For the first time in a long while, I’ve struck out in trying to find a copy of this film for a second look. It seems to be available on Amazon, so I’ll likely be able to update this section at some future date.